Nothing about us without us: Indigenous Peoples at the 41st Universal Periodic Review of states' human rights records
Last Friday 18 November concluded in Geneva the 41st session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Working Group, the mechanism that examines the human rights record of UN Member States.
The UPR is designed to ensure equal treatment for all states when assessing their human rights situation. It provides an opportunity for each state to declare what actions it has taken to improve the human rights situation in its country and to fulfil its human rights obligations. Its ultimate goal is to improve the human rights situation in all countries and to address human rights violations wherever they occur. There is currently no other universal mechanism of this kind.
During this UPR session, the first one of the 4th cycle that will last 5 years until early 2027, fourteen states had to account for the human rights situation in their countries. Among them were the Philippines and Ecuador.
Only a week before the UPR session, in the Philippines, several organisations, including the Indigenous Peoples’ Organisation “Cordillera Peoples Alliance” (CPA), were politically vilified during a lecture of the National Service Training Program hosted by the University of the Philippines Baguio. This is not the first time CPA faces harassment by state forces and is redtagged as an armed rebel group.
In the middle of this year, Indigenous Organisations in Ecuador called a nationwide strike to demand better living conditions and economic and social rights, which had been affected by rising fuel and commodity prices and the expansion of mining, among other issues. The national government responded to the strike with a brutal repression that resulted in several people being killed, injured, arrested and disappeared.
IWGIA supported the preparation of parallel reports in India, the Philippines and Ecuador, and the participation of two representatives of Indigenous Organisations at the UPR session in Geneva, one from the Philippines and the other one from Ecuador. In conversation with IWGIA about the relevance of the UPR mechanism for Indigenous Peoples amid human rights abuses in their countries, Windel Bolinget, Chairperson of the Cordillera Peoples Alliance (CPA) from the Philippines said:
“We believe that the UPR under the UN Human Rights Council is a useful mechanism because it deals with human rights, and human rights is the essence of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, and therefore it is important to engage in this process. However, this process does not allow Indigenous Peoples to speak directly; it's only the states [who can]. But we can utilize this system or platform, or as we can call it: a loudspeaker, to optimize our issues, especially in my case as a victim of political persecution by the Philippine government who is subject for review on November 14. We should not allow only the governments in states to monopolize this process. Even though we are not allowed to speak on the floor officially and directly there are other avenues where we can project our issues and tell the truth […]”.
Like Windel, Nemo Andy Guiquita, Women and Health Officer of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon (COFENIAE) from Ecuador, stressed the importance of the UPR and said:
“This instrument is extremely useful for us because it offers an opportunity to make visible the problems that Indigenous Peoples face in their territories. More than anything else, because we are the owners of the territories. We need to use this platform to make visible all the human rights violations and abuses that we are facing in our territories, the oppression that we experience. In some way, [this] can be made visible through these reviews”.
Regarding the information on the human rights situation provided by the states in their reports to UPR, Windel’s observation is that “the Philippine government has been speaking falsehoods about the situation in the rights of Indigenous Peoples […] It would be important for Indigenous Peoples themselves to tell the world and to the UN system that the Philippine government is not really implementing or following its commitments to human rights, to international humanitarian law, especially Indigenous Peoples’ rights. It's important that Indigenous Peoples themselves will tell and declare that to the world […] I think it's high time again to evaluate and discuss the importance of this process for Indigenous Peoples because it talks about human rights and democracy, and this is what Indigenous Peoples' rights is all about”.
Nemo’s perception after attending the review of Ecuador “has not been so favourable” either. She said:
“We have seen the report that they [the Ecuadorian state] have presented. So, [we are] a bit dismayed because it is not the reality that they are presenting. Ecuador’s report to the UPR does not reflects the reality in the country. It does not mirror the truth, nor the veracity about the situation, for other states to know about the human rights performance of our government. But, nevertheless, our presence here in Geneva has been very useful because we have been able to talk to other states about the situation so that they can make recommendations that better reflect the situation in the country and particularly our situation. We have been telling them the truth about our human rights situation, speaking with them about what is happening in the Amazon, but also in the highlands and in the coast. So, this is indeed a very valuable instrument for us”.
As for the aftermath of the UPR session, both Windel and Nemo highlighted the important role of Indigenous Peoples’ Organisations in advocating at the UN to hold states accountable to their obligations under international human rights treaties, bodies and mechanisms, and particularly on the respect and protection of rights of Indigenous Peoples.
According to Windel, “this is the fourth time that the Philippine government is reviewed under the UPR and from the first, second to the third cycle there have been good and relevant recommendations from the UPR. But inside the Philippines, on the ground, in our communities, our situation did not improve because the obstacle, the problem, is that these good recommendations are not translated into any concrete actions on the ground. And it is us who know the reality. So, it should be us who come here. Nothing about us without us. So, I don't expect much about the outcome of this process. I hope that states and governments will forward the Government of the Philippines some strong recommendations and push them harder, that hopefully this time some of the relevant recommendations will translate into action. But knowing the current and the previous administration […] there is not much to expect. But it is our hope to continue asserting our rights and tell the United Nations and the international community that something has to be done. Otherwise, human rights violations, violations of Indigenous Peoples' rights will continue and intensify with impunity”.
“After attending this session, we are going to inform our organisations, because they need to know what we have been doing in Geneva. They have to know the truth about what has happened here”, said Nemo. She added:
“We are going to share everything we have heard, what we have learned, we are going to pass it on to our people in the territories. Unfortunately, the government is also including one of our indigenous colleagues in the State delegation and they are using her to deny the use of violence by the State against Indigenous Peoples demands. So, this also worries us, it could cause a division in our organisations […] But, nevertheless, we leave Geneva satisfied that we have done our work. We have spoken to officials of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights so that they can include information in their reports. And we have also been able to talk to different states […] So, for us it is very positive to have participated and to have this experience that we are sure it is useful for our organisations and for our territory”.
In addition to the Philippines and Ecuador, Indigenous Peoples’ Organizations from many of the countries under review at this session produced parallel reports, with recommendations to states on Indigenous rights. These parallel reports revealed a common pattern of worsening discrimination against Indigenous Peoples’ identities and ways of life, which have resulted in attacks, killings, forced displacement, increased poverty rates and lower standards of education and health, particularly for Indigenous women and girls. Furthermore, these human rights violations are linked to governments favoring an economic model that ignores the protection of human rights, especially the collective rights of Indigenous Peoples to land and territories, and to self-determination. In this context, it is crucial that the role of Indigenous Peoples in international fora such as the UPR is enhanced.